Down and Out
I was rudely awakened from a sound sleep by the shrieks of my little sister Daphne. She was standing in the open doorway of the barn.
“Rutherford,” she said, “wake up. There’s something going on.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Look out there. See that car with the red light on top of it? What is that?”
I got up, walked over, and took a look. “That’s an ambulance,” I said.
“What’s that?” she said.
I remembered the only other time I could recall seeing an ambulance. It was when old Mr. Davis had suffered a heart attack. We were all really worried about him, but he managed to pull through, and was back on his feet in no time. That was about a year ago.
“An ambulance is a car that takes sick people to the hospital,” I said.
“What’s a hospital?” Daphne asked.
Here we go again. These puppies don’t know anything.
The ambulance had pulled right up to the front door of the house. The light on its roof was spinning, but the siren was off. Nothing else was going on.
“A hospital is a place where they take care of sick people,” I said.
“Who do you suppose is sick?” she asked.
“It’s gotta be Mr. Davis.”
Who else could it be? His wife had passed away before I was born. My mother used to talk about her sometimes. She really missed her. After that happened, everyone thought Mr. Davis might sell his breeding business, but in time, he decided to keep it running. I was sure glad about that.
“I’ll be right back,” I told Daphne. I looked around for my mother. I found her in a corner of the barn nursing some of the other puppies.
“Good morning, Rutherford,” she said. “Why the long face?”
“What’s happening out there?” I asked. “Is it Mr. Davis?”
My mom nodded. “It’s his heart again. I’ve been worried about him lately. For the past couple of weeks, he’s been moving around more slowly. And he looked pale to me the other day.”
“You never said anything.”
“I didn’t want to worry you,” she said. “None of us wants to think about what this place would be like without him.”
She was right. I didn’t want to think about it. I decided to check things out for myself.
I left the barn and walked up to where the ambulance was parked. Just as I got there, the front door of the house swung open. Paramedics wheeled a cart out onto the porch. Mr. Davis was lying on the cart. His eyes were closed. There was a long skinny tube attached to his arm, and one of the people was holding a plastic mask over his nose and mouth.
Horace Davis followed them to the ambulance. He watched as they slid the cart into the back.
“I’ll follow you over there,” he said.
I stared at Horace. I couldn’t bear the thought of him taking over this place.
“What are you lookin’ at, freak?” he said to me. He sneered and walked to the garage.
I watched the ambulance race down the dirt driveway. It was the last time I ever saw Mr. Davis.
The funeral was held a few days later. The procession drove by the farm that morning. My mother insisted we all stand on the side of the road and bark as the cars drove by. It was our own personal tribute to the man who had raised us and cared for us.
That day was a long one. Horace hadn’t fed us. The puppies were fine. They still had mother’s milk. We wondered if there would be more days like this one.
But to our surprise, in the days that followed, Horace never forgot to feed us once. I hoped it meant he had turned over a new leaf, but my mother set me straight.
“He hasn’t changed a bit,” she said. “He knows you can’t sell a dog with its ribs sticking out.”
She was right. We were fed each day, but we didn’t get the attention dogs crave. He couldn’t have cared less about us. All we were to him were dollar signs.
The place was filthy most of the time. Horace would only clean it up when he knew a buyer was coming through. Spirits were getting low. It had become more important than ever for me to concentrate on producing some sensational new material—great jokes that would take our minds off of our new living conditions.
On a Saturday night about two weeks following the funeral, my mom, my brothers and sisters, and some of the other basset hound families gathered in a corner of the barn for my performance.
“Hey, did you hear the one about the dog who went to the flea circus? Wouldn’t you know it—he stole the show.”
It was followed by a timely rim shot. I had taught Daphne how to make that sound. She held a stick in her mouth and banged it on the bottom of a coffee can for the intended effect. It wasn’t perfect, but it did the trick.
Sometimes you have to remind your audience that you just delivered the punch line. That’s where Daphne came in. The older dogs always knew when to laugh. It was those darn puppies who were clueless. Every so often I thought it might be a good idea to install an applause sign just for them. They were that dense.
I ended the show with one of my favorites.
“Hey, here’s one for all you wranglers out there. Did you hear about the dog who limped into town one day? His foot was all bandaged up. The sheriff walked up to him and said, ‘Howdy, stranger, what brings you to Dodge?’ The dog held up his injured foot and said, ‘I’m looking for the man who shot my pa.’”
Rim shot. Thanks, Daphne.
Roars of laughter were followed by applause. It had been a good night.
Barney, one of the grown-up male dogs, slapped me on the back. “I gotta tell you, Rutherford, you never disappoint.” It was high praise coming from one of the veterans.
“Thanks, sir, I appreciate it,” I said.
“So, when’s your next performance?” he asked.
“I’m not really certain. I’ll have to get to work on some new material.”
“Well, you be sure to let me know, you hear?” he said.
“I will. I promise.”
Barney turned to rejoin the others, but then he stopped abruptly. He leaned in, as if he only wanted me to hear what he was about to say.
“Kid, let me give you a little advice.” He looked around to make sure we were still alone. “Things are different around here now. You gotta look over your shoulder at all times. Do you know what I’m trying to say?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. But I knew exactly what he was talking about.
Barney lowered his voice even more. “I don’t trust Horace. Nobody around here does. He could start cleaning house any time now. No one is safe. Heck, I’m getting up in years. He may have no use for me soon.” He had a serious look on his face. “Just be careful out there, okay?”
“Good boy,” Barney said. He winked and joined the other members of his family.
Daphne ran up smiling. “You were great tonight, Rutherford. The crowd loved you.”
“Thanks,” I said with a forced smile.
“What’s wrong?” she said. “You don’t look very happy. Did I make a mistake with the drum or something?”
“No, you did just great. And let me tell you—you have a real musical flair.”
“Listen,” I said, “I have to be somewhere. You better go back with Mom and the others. I’ll see you later.”
She scampered off.
I really had no place to be. I just wanted to be alone. I decided to walk around in the barnyard for a while to think things through.
I guess I wasn’t completely surprised to hear what Barney had said. I had known that if Horace was ever in charge my days around here would be numbered. To him, I was just another mouth to feed. And since no families seemed interested in taking me home with them anytime soon, he was getting nothing in return.
I wandered into the garage, pushed a stepstool up to the back of a pickup truck, and hopped up onto the bed. Horace had returned from town a few minutes earlier, so the back of the truck was still warm. It was time for bed, my favorite time of the day. There was nothing like settling down for the night and a few Zs. If you never noticed, we dogs do love our sleep.
I rolled over onto my side—my favorite position—stretched out my legs, and was soon in dreamland.
To Be Continued…